Art & Architecture at D.C.’s Charles Sumner School

Directly across the street from the headquarters of National Geographic at the corner of 17th and M Streets in downtown D.C. is a historic museum and art space worth checking out if you happen to be in that part of town. I’m guessing it may get overlooked a lot — at first glance, I thought it was a church, and almost walked by without stopping.

Named for the abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, The Charles Sumner School was designed by influential German architect and education advocate Adolf Cluss, who immigrated to the US in 1848. The building, one of Cluss’ famous model schools, was originally opened in 1872 and served as the first permanent school for African American children in Washington, D.C. It was restored in the mid-1980’s and currently houses the official Archives of the D.C. Public Schools.

It’s definitely possible to walk by this place and miss it. But a colorful banner displayed outside caught my eye, so I stepped inside for a look:

There are currently two globally-focused art exhibits on display at the museum. The first is Friends Forever Zimbabwe, a collection of stone pieces by master sculptors from the African nation. This sales exhibition features and promotes the work of 17 artists, including 1st generation artist Edward Chiwawa and 3rd generation sculptor Ennica Mukomberanwa.

This traveling show has been reproduced several times in cities across the globe over the past few years. Each time a group of selected sculptures are ready for shipment, they are first put up as an outdoor exhibition at Friends Forever’s headquarter in Ruwa, east of Harare, Zimbabwe. This current exhibit runs through June 30.

The second exhibit is a sprawling collection of work by Nilo M. Santiago, a former Air Force illustrator and Philippine native who immigrated to the US in 1964. Santiago’s work fills two rooms and a wide hallway on the second floor of the museum. As the official artist of the United States Air Force, Nilo painted aviation arts, murals, portraits and anything else Air Force related. He is a member of the American Society of Aviation Artists (who knew such a thing existed?)

Santiago earned a fine arts degree from the University of Santo Tomas in Manila and eventually found work in the US as a designer. In 1976 he began work for the Air Force, and stayed with them until his retirement in 2003 (except for an 8-year stint at the Navy.) Over 200 of his paintings are in the Air Force Art Collection, on display at the Pentagon and military bases around the world.

Several of Santiago’s collections are influenced by Japanese and Chinese art forms, and there is also a series called “My Philippines” inspired by a return trip he took to Manila after 37 years in the US. The Sumner Museum’s colorful retrospective of oils, watercolors and pen-and-ink drawings by this award winning artist is sponsored by the Philippine Embassy and will be on display through July 23.

A third exhibit on display until the end of June is titled “Center of Attention”, and features the photography of Eduardo Gyles.

The Charles Sumner Museum is open to the public free of charge Monday-Saturday, 10:00am to 5:00pm; the archives are open by appointment only to researchers, scholars and students from Tuesday through Saturday 9:00am to 3:30pm (202-442-6046). The closest Metro stop is Farragut North and Dupont Circle is also only a short walk away.